NORMAN — Nila Kasitati almost died because of his pride.
He tried to tell his eight brothers when he was a child that his chest hurt. They told him to stop being weak.
Go play football.
Years passed, and Kasitati dealt with the symptoms. He couldn't understand why the sharp pains would be there when he woke up, but not always after a hard workout. Then this summer, one of those workouts changed his way of thinking. He found out the shortness of breath, the dizziness, the way his whole body would move up and down with the pounding of his heart meant something was wrong.
The Oklahoma backup left guard learned he had a heart arrhythmia. Because of HIPAA laws, the doctor could not confirm the exact type of arrhythmia, but Kasitati did say he went to Dr. Warren “Sonny” Jackman, an Oklahoma doctor famous for the specific procedure he performed on Kasitati.
Jackman is an electrophysiologist, a cardiologist who operates on the electrical system of the heart, for the OU Medical Center. He came to Oklahoma more than 30 years ago when the field for his work was rare.
He pioneered Radiofrequency Catheter Ablation, which is a procedure that sends a current to an extremely specific area of the heart's conduction system. This current is supposed to destroy the site of origin of the arrhythmia. Jackman has treated professional athletes, actors and the Sultan of Brunei's son.
If an arrhythmia isn't stopped, the heart's ability to pump blood reduces, causing blood flow to diminish. Jackman said that can cause a person to be very tired.
“And if it's a marked reduction, at times, the brain may not receive enough blood flow and they can get dizzy or faint,” Jackman said.
Kasitati said he never passed out, although he did get lightheaded and dizzy. Sometimes, just standing up made him feel like he had run a mile.
If a heart's rhythm begins to go too fast, Jackman said it can produce sudden death.
Kasitati was born to a family of 10 children, and his mother said he was the healthiest. He passed the chest pains off as nothing. He grew up being taught not to show weakness, so he never said anything.
But when the doctors sat him down and told him he needed surgery to repair the problems, Kasitati said he “kind of knew” he could die.
“I just kept thinking to myself, ‘If this is what God wants, then that's what I'm going to do. If it's his will for me to not play football, then there's probably something else better out there for me,' ” Kasitati said.
Kasitati underwent surgery at the end of July and returned to practice just a few days later.
“Knowing what it is now and what it could do to me, like the risk of going too far with something,” Kasitati said. “I think I'd be more careful but wouldn't let it stop me. I'd be more careful like I wouldn't take it too far like if I knew I was about to pass out. I'd tell someone but if I could go on with it I wouldn't stop.”
There is a chance, depending on the exact problems Kasitati had, that it could recur in other areas of his heart years later, but Jackman said some problems never come back.
Kasitati stood smiling as he looked down at the big body that God blessed him with and said he sends a special prayer to Him for what he's been given.
“ ... and for making me so strong and the surgery and me finding out before anything too bad happened,” Kasitati said. “Everything is a blessing. I try to be thankful for everything that I have and just make sure that just to tell myself that it's not mine its His and all the glory goes to Him.
“I still get to play football and have my family come watch me play and see them happy.
“I'm good to go.”
What is a heart arrhythmia, and what does the Radiofrequency Catheter Ablation do?
So what was happening inside Nila Kasitati's 6-4, 309-pound body?
Well, the normal pacemaker of his heart was firing too fast. The electric wave that spreads over a heart muscle, in a normal heart, begins in the sinus node. The normal rhythm is called a sinus rhythm.
That sinus node makes an electrical discharge that spreads throughout the heart. Dr. Warren “Sonny” Jackman said it's under the control of the brain so “when you're resting or sleeping, it tells the sinus node to slow down and when you're active or running or where you need to pump more blood, it signals to the sinus node to speed up.”
“What catheter ablation does is we put multiple catheters in the vein and thread them to the heart ...” Jackman said. “These catheters are tubes that have little metal rings on them that serve as an electrode, and we can actually record the electrical activation from these electrodes and we can start up the abnormal rhythm, the rapid rhythm.
“We can trigger it by pacing certain ways and start it up and then move the catheters around and record the electrical activation in different parts of the heart until we find the place that it's originating from — whether it's due to automaticity going too fast or whether there's a short circuit making re-entry.
“When we do (find that area) we can place the catheter against that spot and deliver electricity through the metal tip.”
Because heart muscles act like a resistor to that electricity, the muscle temporarily increases in temperature. That spot of the heart muscle then dies and is replaced with a scar “about the size of a pea.” The scar doesn't hurt or injure the heart. It does eliminate the area that is generating that rapid rhythm.